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MMA Roundtable: Silva-Weidman storylines, Frankie Edgar's road back, fighter pay

Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

It's UFC 162 fight week, so my colleague Shaun Al-Shatti and I met up at the old roundtable to discuss some of the pertinent topics of the day, including whether a win by Anderson Silva or Chris Weidman makes for a better storyline, whether a Silva superfight will ever happen, how the UFC will handle Frankie Edgar's road back into title contention, and Dana White's recent rant about fighter pay.

First question ...

1. Which would be the more compelling storyline in a post-UFC 162 world: Anderson Silva retaining his title or Chris Weidman dethroning the champ?

Al-Shatti: I posed a similar question this time a year ago, when a smooth-talking Chael Sonnen was poised to finish what he started at UFC 148. Back then I wrote that a Sonnen victory would be the most compelling storyline by far because it’d blow open the door to the division that’d grown stale and become a pivotal turning point in the UFC. Well, so much for that.

Once the Sonnen-era fizzled out before it ever started, and Silva subsequently made Stephan Bonnar look like he’d never trained a day in his life, the narrative for this question shifted in my eyes. Dynasties sell in professional sports. It’s the reason the '90’s Chicago Bulls and '00’s New England Patriots were so celebrated, and the reason the 2013 NBA Finals ended with the second-most watched game in NBA history. People tune in to see greatness, even if they’re rooting against it.

Silva was 31 years old when he first strapped the UFC middleweight title around his waist. He’s now 38 years old, still clutching that belt in a young man’s game. Not only is his reign of dominance implausible, but the manner in which it’s played out is blatantly absurd. Silva doesn’t just beat world-class athletes, he embarrasses them with such disregard, it often changes the course of his victim’s career.

Fedor Emelianenko lost it in his mid-30s. So did B.J. Penn, Chuck Liddell, Matt Hughes, and a whole slew of legends from the previous era. But Silva, somehow he just keeps chugging along, tiptoeing towards middle age while performing his bloody ballet on all comers. Who knows? Now that he faces his first true opponent of the new generation, perhaps "The Spider" finally falls at UFC 162. After all, it’s destined to happen sometime. Although after eight years perched atop the throne, it’s certainly hard to doubt the man.

Either way, Silva’s otherworldly greatness has transformed into the most fascinating storyline throughout the entire UFC, and I’m not sure there’s even a close second.

Chiappetta: I must disagree with Shaun on this one. Silva retaining the title? That's expected, maybe even a bit routine. Not the way he does it, of course. His methods of finish have mostly been jaw-dropping over the years. But at this point, we expect him to win. Even now, when more people than ever are picking his opponent, if Silva proves those predictions wrong, we'll slap ourselves and wonder what the hell we were thinking for doubting him.

But if Weidman wins? We're in uncharted territory. And here is where Shaun's point of view becomes more relevant. Silva has done it so well for so long, we will be in a state of shock whenever he finally loses, no matter who it is to. Weidman beating Silva isn't exactly Buster Douglas over Mike Tyson, or even Matt Serra over Georges St-Pierre, but it will still take a while for the result to sink in that the most dominant UFC champ we have ever seen has finally lost.

And think about what might follow. Dana White said earlier this week that Silva would be granted an immediate rematch. So for the months to follow, we'd spend time wondering if the great "Spider" could reach back and find glory again, or if Weidman just had his number. The Sonnen rematch was huge just because Silva looked vulnerable the first time; what about if he has lost?

If Silva wins, well, then it's the same old, same old, which isn't bad, but isn't nearly as interesting when it comes to the dynamics of the division. At least we can continue to entertain the idea of a superfight.

2. Speaking of superfights, the talk never seems to really go away, and Dana White stoked the flames in the last few days, saying that Silva could move on to one next if he beats Weidman. Are you buying that?

Chiappetta: Not really. The main thing here is that the participants haven't exactly embraced the idea. Silva wants to fight St-Pierre, but GSP doesn't want to fight him. And Silva doesn't seem overly interested in moving up to fight Jon Jones, even though he recently said he'd take the fight if the UFC asked him to.

The fact of the matter is that the UFC has had chances to make at least the St-Pierre vs. Silva fight in the past, and they haven't been able to do so. The idea of the GSP-Silva pairing, after all, dates back to the spring of 2009, when the UFC first entertained the possibility while contemplating a show at Toronto's massive Rogers Centre. Four years later, both are still champions, and the pairing has never materialized, so it's hard to believe it will now.

Silva-Jones seems the more likely option of the two, even if its chances aren't so great. Silva is closer in size to Jones than to GSP, and he's already fought at 205 in the past. But he's got to be willing, and he's got to beat Weidman on Saturday. Neither is a given, though I will say that his recent 10-fight extension could be reason to believe he'll be more receptive to the idea.

The UFC, through Dana White, has never shied away from talk about a superfight, but so many things have to line up correctly, and we already know GSP is set to fight in November, so a Silva-GSP fight seems unlikely any time soon. That leaves Silva vs. Bones, and well, when one of the participants sounds uninspired and the other sound unenthused, we probably shouldn't get our hopes too high.

Al-Shatti: Mike hit the nail on the head with this one. For years we’ve been hearing the same thing. So what’s changed? The landscape is no different now than it was when Silva bombarded Montreal with St-Pierre themed interviews at UFC 154.

Sure, according to Dana White, Silva ‘called asking for a fight’ following Jon Jones’ systematic destruction of Chael Sonnen. Silva-Weidman was already on the books at that point, so White’s ominous answer was, "(Silva’s) got to get past his first fight, and then I'll work on that one." The thing is, after years of empty promises and declarations, accepting anything White says on the subject with little more than a grain of salt is foolish. He is, after all, a promoter above all else.

Could Silva wind up fighting either Jones or St-Pierre if he beats Weidman? I guess. But you can only string me along so many times before I just stop falling for it. When I hear a definitive statement straight from the horse’s mouth, I’ll care. But until then it’s all white noise to me.

3. Frankie Edgar fought 34 rounds over the course of seven straight title bouts, but owns just one win since 2011. Where does Edgar sit in the featherweight division if he rights his ship and defeats Charles Oliveira on Saturday?

Al-Shatti: Right now Frankie Edgar is the No. 3 ranked fighter in the featherweight division, so technically speaking, he’ll probably stay right where he’s at, even with an impressive win. But in a more abstract sense, a win for Edgar on Saturday is invaluable. Fans haven’t seen Edgar’s arms outstretched in victory in almost 21 months. Even with all his close and controversial calls, that’s a lifetime in MMA’s ‘what have you done for me lately’ culture. So just in Edgar’s mind and the collective public conscious, it’ll probably be a welcome reintroduction to the fact that, yes, Edgar is capable of winning in the UFC.

But besides that, I actually support the road UFC matchmakers seem to have drawn out for Edgar. Personally I hope the Oliveira match-up isn’t just a one-and-done deal before he gets thrown back to the wolves, but rather, that Edgar is given the Chad Mendes treatment for a few fights to rebuild a full head of steam.

Consider it. Mendes exited his loss to Jose Aldo as a decision-prone wrestler stuck in no-man’s land. But three tune-up fights later, he’s a knockout artist riding the largest wave of confidence of his career. After seven straight title fights, six of which went to decision, that kind of medicine sounds right up Edgar’s alley. Feed him a few middle-tier featherweights, let him notch a few finishes and relight his fire, then unleash Edgar back onto the top-10 circuit with a renewed gust of hype at his back. Remember, Edgar is only 31 years old. It's a marathon, not a sprint.

Chiappetta: I mostly agree with Shaun's proposal of giving Edgar a slower road back to the belt. The "Mendes treatment" that Shaun advocates is fair, only because Edgar has had so many opportunities to fight for belts already.

He's lost three in a row. Even if at least two of them are controversial, he's had his chances and couldn't get it done.
The only problem with it is when he talks about letting Edgar "rediscover his fire." For one thing, I'm not sure Edgar ever lost it; for another, if he did, I don't know if lower-profile bouts are the path to get there.

For the past three years, title fights are all Edgar has known. He has been competing for the sport's biggest prizes. Will a step down feel as important? Will it bring out the best in him? I guess we'll start to get our answer on Saturday, because Oliveira is a guy he should beat. That said, Shaun is right on the money that the best he can hope for is retaining his same No. 3 ranking, though Edgar has reached the stage of credibility where ranking no longer really matters.

4. Dana White recently said he and Lorenzo Fertitta were considering doing away with nightly bonus awards in favor of increasing guaranteed fight purses. Do you like that idea?

Chiappetta: I generally like the idea of improved guaranteed money over the possibility of what might come. Yes, the $50,000 (and sometimes higher) nightly bonuses are a great boon to most fighters who win them, but when there's 22-26 athletes on a given card, your chances of going home with one of those checks isn't very good. That leaves a lot of fighter struggling, and a few happy ones.

Look at it this way, if you took the $200,000 in nightly awards the UFC averages and divide it by, say, 24 fighters that usually populate a card, that could be an extra $8,333 per man. Considering that UFC rookies still make $8,000 purses to start, that extra money would go a long way in helping them train professionally. I don't necessarily think that's the way it should be divvied up, but that shows just how impactful a change could be.

I would much prefer to see UFC rookies signed to guaranteed three-fight deals so they have some job security, and starting pay go up to about $12,000 per fight. That way they can be guaranteed around $24,000 in a year assuming they fight twice, along with whatever sponsor pay they can scrounge up.

This is my idea: You take that $200,000 in bonus money, and you split about $100,000 of it evenly, so over the course of a 12-fight card, each fighter gets a boost of about $4,000. The other $100,000 goes into a bonus pool, and is split by anyone who finishes their fight. If 10 guys finish, they get $10,000 apiece. If two guys finish, they take $50,000 apiece. That way each fighter is guaranteed a little more money but also incentivized to close out his opponent. Beyond that, I think every main-event fighter should share a piece of pay-per-view revenue. When the fight is sold on your name, that seems only fair.

Al-Shatti: First of all, I have to say that White’s expletive-filled rant while discussing this proposal was an inspiring slice of promoter speak. His words: "We're more like Major League Soccer, as far as financials go. You fight three times a year, you make [$50,000 to show and $50,000 to win], you're making $300,000 a year fighting three times a year."

Just to start, obviously the UFC isn’t breaking the bank like the NBA or NFL. But when White himself invites the NFL comparisons through the media, it’s poor form to backpedal when it doesn’t do him any favors. But that notwithstanding, the numbers he’s throwing out here don’t add up, which makes the comparison to Major League Soccer fall flat on its face. A 50k/50k split isn’t the norm in the UFC. Earning potential that high rests with only a small percentage of non-champions, and even that $300,000 mark assumes a fighter rattled off three straight victories within a calendar year, which rarely happens. It’s also worth noting that the average MLS salary, from the bench warmer to the star, totals around $160,000 a year, which far exceeds the average yearly income for a UFC fighter. Likewise regarding the MLS league minimum ($35,125).

But all things aside, if you’re asking whether I support the UFC’s proposed solution, I’d shake my head and point to Mike’s pitch as a good starting point -- particularly the introduction of finishing bonuses and guaranteed contracts. Universally incentivizing exciting action is always a good idea, while guaranteed contracts would allow fighters of all levels to treat MMA like the professional sport it is.

To explain: say the UFC signs a promising 20-year-old to a three-fight deal starting at 10k/10k. With a contract guaranteeing the kid three fights, he knows for a fact he’ll earn a minimum of $30,000 that year, allowing him to allocate the money as needed. You know, like a real job. If the prospect spends it right, he can drop his other job, pay for living expenses and focus fulltime on fighting for the entire calendar year without worry of financial ruin from an unexpected loss of income.

This isn’t the dark ages anymore. If mixed martial arts expects to start coaxing some of the world’s super athletes into its ranks, there needs to be a brighter pitch than, ‘Well maybe you’ll eventually turn into Jon Jones.’ Because frankly, aside from love of the sport, right now there isn’t too much incentive to become an MMA fighter. At best, you’re destroying your body for a middle-class income, and at worst, you’re dooming yourself to a life of hardship and poverty. It’s why I get confused any time I see fans grumbling about how fighters ‘knew what they were getting into.’ Well yes, many of them did. But fighters aren’t monkeys trained to dance for our entertainment. For the most part, they’re individuals living fiscally erratic lives with a slim chance of financial stability. Honestly, the lack of human empathy involved in this discussion is sometimes dizzying.

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